Saturday, June 28, 2008

Satoshi Kon at the Lincoln Center Film Society

Satoshi Kon smiling (he really likes to smile)

I had the privilege yesterday of attending a screening of Paprika yesterday followed by a Q&A session with the director himself, Satoshi Kon. Kon is probably my favorite person working in anime right now. He directed Paranoia Agent, my favorite anime series of the decade (if we are friends, I have probably tried getting you to watch it at some point). His work is a breath of fresh air, not least because he can avoid falling into the tired cliches that most of his peers do. In the span of 13 episodes, Kon did not only tackle themes that are virtually non-existent in mainstream anime (the fetishization of "cute" in Japan, the excesses of otaku culture, the contrast between Japan's post-war ideals and today's consumer driven culture, and lots else), but did so without being at all pedantic. And the visual presentation of his work, is of course, stunning.

Lil Slugger, seemingly the show's main antagonist

At one point, the host of the program asked Kon whether he had gone into directing Paranoia Agent knowing how it would end or if the ending was an unplanned, natural culmination of the creating process. To my great surprise, he admitted it to be the latter case, claiming that "if I knew the ending before I wrote it, the audience would probably know the ending too." He said he realized around the 11th episode or so that he only had two more episodes to tie everything together, and really struggled to think of a way out, almost wishing for Lil Slugger to be real and put him out of his misery (that was a real laugh out loud moment for those in the room who'd seen the series). I did not have any impression that the ending was forced or rushed, although it felt big. I'm getting a little carried away in talking about Paranoia Agent here, but only because it's that good. Please watch it if you have even a minimal interest in anime.

I was also highly impressed by Paprika, it's one of those movies you can watch multiple times and get more out of on each viewing. It's quite a mindfuck, from a narrative and especially a visual perspective, but it is by no means impossible to follow. Generally, the film examines the role of technology in blurring the line between dreams and reality, but of course there is more to it. Being the geek that I am, I got REALLY excited when I picked up on what must have been a slight nod to Dragonball Z; the character Paprika enters one of the dream worlds riding on a cloud with a red staff in hand (Goku and the Flying Nimbus, anyone?) I meant to ask Kon about it, but by the end of the movie I needed to pee so badly that any question I would've asked after would've probably formed into rambling nonsense.

If you are reading this and happen to be in New York until this Tuesday, I highly suggest you make your way over to Lincoln Center and catch the screening of one of his films and/or Paranoia Agent. I believe he'll be having another Q&A session tomorrow following the end of PA, and he's a very humorous, insightful fellow. Here's the link to the event:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Operation:Doomsday is a classic

And this is why I took the time to write this silly post. First, I would like to direct your attention to a much shorter yet generally accurate review of the album here.

Newer hip-hop fans may not know this, but there was a time when MF DOOM was not an indie sensation. There was a time when he did not have his own line of Nike SB Dunks, a time when was unknown to those watching Adult Swim, a time when he couldn't afford to send impostors wearing DOOM masks to his live performances in his place. There was even a time when MF DOOM rapped and was not MF DOOM. Instead, Daniel Dumile was first known as Zev Love X, an Afrocentric MC who made music with his twin brother DJ Subroc and friend Rodan under the moniker KMD (Kausing Much Damage). Tragically, during the recording of their 1994 sophomore LP Black Bastards (not to be released until 2001 due to its political content, a source of frustration for Dumile), Subroc was hit by a car and killed. This loss profoundly shook Dumile, who has admitted that he was "damn near homeless" afterward, "walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches."

Fast forward to 1999. Daniel Dumile has finally started to rap again. Zev Love X, however, is no longer; MF DOOM has now taken his place. DOOM does not release an incendiary follow-up to Black Bastards, but instead drops Operation:Doomsday, a loose concept album relating the story of Dr. Doom to MF DOOM, ultimately portraying DOOM as half-street smart/half-comic book nerd supervillain. The concept would make it a remarkable record in its own right, but in light of Dumile's history and stunning transformation, it strikes me as even more fascinating. I've been bumping this since late April and I seem to find more to love about it on each listen and yet I never see it mentioned when people talk about the best hip-hop albums of the 90s. Of course, one could easily respond by saying "well, that's because it ISN'T one of the best albums of the 90s," and from a purely technical standpoint, that may be true. Still, I think DOOM deserves a lot of credit for his originality and creativity; he created one hell of a persona for himself within the course of 19 tracks. And while DOOM the MC may be overrated in a few circles, DOOM the producer is most certainly underrated by about everyone, and he shows that he can give even Prince Paul competition when it comes to sampling creativity. So, I think I'll grace my two or so readers with a detailed track-by-track write up on Operation:Doomsday (I hope you aren't scared away by its length!), mainly because it appears to be so overlooked by hip-hop fans.

While he was no longer Zev Love, DOOM was still undoubtedly influenced by the unfortunate events in his recent past during the making of Operation:Doomsday. DOOM does not only refer to Subroc throughout the LP, but there is something different about his delivery on this album vs. both his earlier AND his later work. A lot of people tend criticize DOOM for having a monotone voice and off-beat/boring flow, although I think his low-key delivery adds to his mystique as a laid-back, successful supervillain. I think his performance on this will silence those critics, however, as he sounds a lot more lively and urgent on this disc anywhere else. I'd like to think that his identity was still somewhat in flux during this time; he was done being Zev Love X, but how would he let his audience know that DOOM was an entirely different creature? That his new DOOM incarnation (with the mask and all) wasn't just some marketing gimmick? To erase these doubts, he steps to the mic boisterously and confidently without sounding self-satisfied.

Okay, so onto the actual music. MF DOOM himself doesn't narrate the story of Dr. Doom, but relies on Fantastic Four samples to do the job for him, weaving his full-length tracks in between them. He doesn't necessarily directly relate his songs to these skits, but they work to make the LP more cohesive and provide a general sense of where DOOM is coming from. I don't really know where to start, so I think I'll go with a track by track rundown on this (don't worry, I won't dedicate a whole paragraph each to every song). I'm not a big fan of the format, but it's the only way I can provide links to SAMPLES for each song! Ooh, I know you crate diggers out there must be getting excited (though I didn't do any digging of my own, these were found courtesy of

This is a bit long, so first I'll just tell you songs that I consider MUST reads/listens if you're strapped for time (alternatively, you can jump to the end for a summary):

Go With the Flow
Red And Gold
Dead Bent
Gas Drawls
? feat. Kurious
I Hear Voices, Part 1

1) The Time We Faced Doom (Skit)

This isn't your typical bullshit intro skit, as it actually sets the tone for the remainder of the album. The Fantastic Four are beginning to tell the story of how they beat Dr. Doom when Doom suddenly calls in to tell the story himself.

2) Doomsday
"Definition 'super-villain': a killer who love children
One who is well-skilled in destruction, as well as buildin"

I love love love this. This captures MF DOOM's character in a nutshell. He really goes all over the place as far as lyrical content this track, and yet somehow you get the feeling that you understand his style more and more with each line. There are really too many quotables on this to go through the entire thing, as there is practically no hook and he raps straight for 3+ minutes. There is a short refrain that appears twice in the track that I find especially moving, though:

"On Doomsday!
Ever since the womb til I'm back where my brother went
That's what my tomb will say
Right above my government, Doom will lay (probably a play on his last name, Dumile)
Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who's to say?"

The beat fits DOOM perfectly. Mellow drums, a jazzy keyboard loop, somber female vocals, scratching, it's all there. Did I mention that he produced the entire album? Anyway, here's the track for you to listen to:

He samples singer Sade Adu's "Kiss of Life" and makes her voice work in an entirely different context. Peep the video around the 1:20 mark:

3) Rhymes Like Dimes

The first time I heard this track I was underwhelmed (mainly because Doomsday put me in such an incredible high), but it's grown a lot on me with repeated listens. DOOM rides this strange game show sounding beat really well (or perhaps doesn't ride it at all, depending on how you look at things), with some quotable lines again:

"I sell rhymes like dimes
The one who mostly keep cash but brag about the broker times
Joker rhymes, like the 'Is you just happy to see me?' trick
Classical slap-stick rappers need Chapstick
A lot of 'em sound like they in a talent show
So I give 'em something to remember, like the Alamo
Tally-ho! A high Joker like Spades game
Came back from five year layin' and stayed the same"

You can listen to the track here:

He samples James Ingram's "One Hundred Ways," again unpredictably. Check this:

4) The Finest feat. Tommy Gunn

Alright, I think I'm going to start highlighting my personal favorites after this lest I get repetitive. Another good track, DOOM and his partner just trade hard and humorous battle rhymes:

"I know about going paid to broke, to next day well-off
To bust a shell off, to 'Dick-riders! Get the hell off!'"
The song:

Samples The SOS Band's "The Finest" pretty straight forwardly:

5) Back In The Days (Skit)

6) Go With The Flow

Another one of my favorites. DOOM samples Kool G. Rap's "Truly Yours" and The Spinners' "Ain't No Price On Happiness" to create a beat of magic here, one that can "make a Arab thief clap/With no hands, I chop these drums off Truly Yours, G rap." There's no need for me to quote anything, just listen to it:

Sample - DJ Polo and Kool G. Rap:

Sample - The Spinners:

7) Tick, Tick Feat. MF Grimm

I didn't really like this track at first until I looked up the original Beatles sample. DOOM plays with the actual tempo of the beat throughout while Grimm does his thing. I thought it was annoying at first, but seeing just how much he altered it… you'll have to hear for yourself; it might even take you a few listens to pick up on the sample.


Sample - The Beatles' "Glass Onion":

8) Red And Gold Feat. King Geedorah

Okay okay so I know I said I'd stop highlighting every track, but as I go through the tracklisting, it's hard to find one that isn't notable in some way. Although the title says it's featuring an MC named King Geedorah, King Geedorah is actually just another alter-ego of Daniel Dumile based on King Ghidra, Godzilla's three headed nemesis. How fucking ill is that? I'll leave it to you readers to do a little research on the full premise of Geedorah, but just know this is another serious contender for favorite track/best beat on the album. These drums are HUGE, and MF DOOM creatively interpolates a seemingly simple cheesy 80s sample yet again. Everything is just perfect here. Quotes don't do Geedorah's lyrics justice, but what the hell:

"No science-fiction to no theater near you, coming soon to
Fuck with you frequently like how phases of the moon would do
You could gather 'round like it was an eclipse
Just don't look directly to the bitch, you may be blinded by the crips"

Just listen to this PLEASE:

Sample – The Deele "Shoot Em Up Movies":

9) The Hands of Doom (Skit)

10) Who You Think I Am? Feat. Featuring King Caesar, Rodan, Megalon, Kamackeris & Kong

The album's posse cut. DOOM samples jazz musician Yusef Lateef's "Eastern Market," which is actually a really good standalone piece, probably a better track than DOOM's. Still, some of the guest verses are pretty good, so it's worth hearing.


Sample – Yusef Lateef's "Eastern Market":

11) Doom, Are You Awake? (Skit)

12) Hey!

Cool little diddy, DOOM talks about drug dealing in his own way over a Scooby Doo sample.


13) Operation: Greenbacks Feat. Megalon and King Geedorah

"What a fella! Like Salt, Pepa, Spinderella
I came to spark the deaf, dumb and blind like Helen Keller
If I'm not with George of the Jungle, if he not with Stella
Or either Priscilla, I'm doing dips on Godzilla
…Though y'all know he don't play, right?"

How he (now King Geedorah/Ghidra again, not MF DOOM) was able to incorporate lines like these into a song about getting money, I'm still not sure. People say Weezy F. Baby's strength relies on his ability to string together rambling incoherent boasts for the sake of fun, but guys like Dumile have been doing it for years. Really ill soulful beat on this, too.


Sample - Isaac Hayes' "Our Day Will Come":

14) The Mic

Very solid, if slightly abstract storytelling track about DOOM doing live performances and meeting women. Like all other DOOM songs, repeated listenings allow you to pick up golden lines like these:

"Myself and two a alikes had ran through this crew of three
In my earlier days they showed me things new to me
So we knew mad brothers who they had hit off
They even used to watch each other just to rock they shit off"

Sample – Atlantic Starr's "All In The Name of Love":

15) The Mystery of Doom (Skit)

16) Dead Bent

The way he flips Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By" here is just ridiculous. He effortlessly turns a bluesy, soulful ballad into an aggressive, edgy beat.

Song: (this is actually a quite clever video)

Sample – Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By":

17) Gas Drawls

Between Doomsday and this, it's really hard to choose the album's best cut. DOOM is really on some other shit here. It features some of my favorite lines on the album:

"the super villain-
cooler than a million
i be chillin
still quick to slice squares like sicilian
dont make me have to hurt them feelins
ill ruin you in the dirt that i be doin in my dealins
sendin spirits through the ceilin'-
chrome peelin'-
dome blown
within the comforts of your own home
grown big
wheelin' and high rollin'
I hold the lye-
it keeps the sty on my eye swollen"

Beyond examining particular rhymes, it's really hard to describe any of these tracks just because he can spit from 13418 directions within a single verse. And really, you have to actually hear his flow for the lines to be compelling. Anyway, he scratches the laid back vocals from "Black Cow" by Steely Dan into the track to create what may be the best beat on the album (only Red And Gold gives this competition, IMO).


Sample – Steely Dan's "Black Cow":

18) ? feat. Kurious

You get the feeling that the entire LP was leading up to this point, as the beat has already appeared on several skits. Dr. Doom announces that “the last thing to fit... was the mask” before MF DOOM spits:
“He cleans his metal mask with gasoline
Then after I'm last seen
Pullin' a chick like a fiend
Pull a fast one
Can't put shit past him
Got niggas on his own team mad enough to blast him”

This is the first time DOOM uses a Fantastic Four skit to lead directly into a track. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he waits this long to assert that he and Dr. Doom are essentially the same; he uses all of the preceding tracks to establish how the music industry and personal tragedy have forced him to become like said supervillain. This is reinforced on the last verse, containing DOOM’s most detailed and heartfelt lyrics concerning Subroc’s death:

“By candlelight my hand will write these rhymes 'til I'm burnt out
Mostly from experience, shit that I learned about
You know I know
These hos be asking me if I'm you
Like my twin brother we did everything together
From under ? to coppin butter leathers
Remember when you went and got the dark blue Ballys
I had all the different color Cazale Cazales
But SubRoc, you shoulda went with the Ruby and the old Ock
Truly the illest dynamic duo on the whole block
I keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand
Everything is going according to plan man”

Dr. Doom returns after this verse, announcing that he has come to seek revenge on those who forced him to don his mask. Before he can enact his revenge, an explosion can be heard followed by a voice declaring “well, that’s the end of Doom!” There is still one track left, however...


19) I Hear Voices (Part 2)

“You thought I was done for, eh? Well I’m very much... ALIVE” proclaims Dr. Doom before DOOM steps in and obliterates this track. And I mean obliterates. I’m getting lazy here, but DOOM demonstrates why he’s lyrically ill and picks up women and what not before cutting back to a Dr. Doom sample where Doom threatens the world with mass destruction if he is not elected world leader. He counts down to 2 seconds before an explosion is heard, and Operation:Doomsday comes to a close.



MAN, I can’t believe I just did that. Tracking down some of those links where harder than I’d thought they’d be. If you decided to skip all of that, it’s fine, just know that I consider Operation:Doomsday to be a classic. I remember someone arguing that MF DOOM has never been a Dilla, Premier, or Madlib behind the boards, but I think that’s missing the point. With almost no blueprint before him, DOOM was able to create a marriage of beats and rhymes that almost perfectly accomplished his goal of creating a new (if whacky) identity for himself. I would even go as far as to say that it’s the 90s’ answer to De La’s 3 Feet High And Rising, given both LPs were littered with quirky samples that served to boldly distinguish their creators from their peers. Really, when you try to put yourself in Dumile’s shoes in 1999, crafting this LP must’ve posed quite a risk; he could’ve alienated the already narrow fan base he’d established with KMD, the Beatles sample probably wasn’t cleared, etc. The album is out of print now, but I suggest you get your hands on this via ALL MEANS NECESSARY. E-mail me if you’re at a loss of how to do so.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The greatest alive?

I had a hazy idea of who Lil Wayne was before the beginning of the school year. I'd heard from a few that he was "hot" if not "the hottest rapper in the game," but only from people whose opinions I didn't take too seriously (I wasn't quite up on the blogosphere just yet). I unfairly labeled him as another Southern one-trick crunk pony, without actually bothering to listen to any of his material.

Surprisingly, it was at Swarthmore that I began to see first-hand the amount of hype and importance that has been attached to Lil Wayne. I remember one time I was doing statistics with my friend Ray in the library, both listening to our iPods, and him suddenly telling me,"Berto, I can't feel my face!" "Wait, what, Ray?" "I said I can't feel my FACE!" "Um." With increasing frequency, both kids who could and couldn't really give a damn about hip-hop beyond The Hood Internet or whatever mashup group started trying to convince me of the genius of Lil Wayne. Unique voice, humour, crazy flows, what was there not to like?

Still, I slept, dismissing most of his supporters as those who'd enjoy only rap ironically. Outside of occasionally listening to him in a friend's room or being told that she wants to lick him like a lollipop at EVERY campus gathering from March onward, I didn't make time to listen to him. Too much other classic material to get through, I told myself.

Between taking the train to and from work and sitting idly at my work desk for entire days on end, I've actually had plenty of free time to myself now, most of which was spent reading other people's reactions to Tha Carter III. While I'd already arranged a list of albums to get through for the week, my curiosity finally got the best of me today and I listened to Tha Carter III (I love typing out this album title!).

Now, if this were a review of Tha Carter III, I wouldn't have wasted your time with this ridiculously long introduction. No, I feel some have already critiqued the album down insightfully enough (if not getting a little too hyped about doing so).

What I find truly interesting is the diversity of opinion you find on the album and Lil Wayne in general; the critical media (Pitchfork especially) mostly love him, while the bloggers I read think he's above average to awfully overrated. My basic thoughts are that Tha Carter III, while not a bad album bad any means, is nowhere near the classic that Wayne was aiming for. I was both pleasantly surprised and disappointed by this album; I finally recognized Wayne's flow and word-bending talents, but I wish he could've just focused a bit more on using those talents to make the album more cohesive.

A friend of mine recently told me he feels people shit on Lil Wayne just because he likes to have fun. After reading so many different takes on him, though, I think the divide between his fans and his ardent critics are more fundamental than a lack of humour on the part of hardcore rap nerds (I have seen Redman on too many Top 10 lists to count). Not so implicit in all of these discussions are differing notions how great hip-hop should be defined in the year 2008.

In the comment section of one of the blogs I linked to, Doctor Zeus suggested that Lil Wayne study GZA to learn about the art of the extended metaphor. I think that's a perfect example of what a lot of older rap fans expect; to be heralded as "the greatest rapper alive" today, Wayne would have to match or surpass the quality of the work that's come before him. That's a tall order, and a reasonable argument could be made that it's a snobbish one. Why can't Lil Wayne just make great music, why must he be compared to other people? The fact is, however, that Lil Wayne very self-conciously aspires to be mentioned alongside Jay-Z, Biggie, etc., and a lot of media outlets and fans have already embraced the idea. This makes other heads, the ones who've bumped Liquid Swords since '94, defensive. If the hype machine is able to make Lil Wayne into the greatest rapper of the decade despite his technical shortcomings, it almost feels like there's been a breach of continuity in hip-hop's story.

Of course, it is only natural that as a form of popular music, hip-hop can be consumed and critiqued by anybody from an ahistorical context, so I don't personally sweat all of the acclaim too much. In fact, I'll probably be bumping "Dr. Carter" for a good while, I think it shows what Weezy F. Baby can do when he actually sticks to a concept. And even if future pop-rappers lacking Wayne's talent take his free-associative rhyming-without-writing approach too far, at least I'll always have Operation:Doomsday (I have fallen in love with this album, write-up to come soon hopefully).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

So, maybe I kinda lied before about this not becoming a hip-hop blog...

I'm kinda late on this, but I want to add to all of the hype surrounding Wale and his recently released "The Mixtape About Nothing." Even though it's billed as a mixtape, I'm sure it'll stand head and shoulders above most actual albums released this year. In fact, it is one of the first mixtapes of its kind, featuring original material and actually following something like a concept, as Wale incorporates a loose Seinfeld theme throughout it. Seinfeld is known as a show "about nothing," the mixtape is "about nothing," get it, yeah? Except Wale is actually able to say a lot working within this framework, and the Seinfeld samples really help him. I don't quite have the drive to break this down as I did Starship Utopia, but know that the mixtape contains what may possibly be the best song in hip-hop about the n word titled "The Kramer" (see, he really does use this Seinfeld thing quite brilliantly) If you're reading this, you MUST AT LEAST listen to that song, and after you enjoy it, why not cop the mixtape? It's actually quite funny and witty overall and free and most likely better to whatever you're listening to anyway.

(You can read a more detailed and accurate review of the mixtape here.)

Also, would anyone be interested in starting something like a black music alliance/club at Swarthmore? I'll type up details sometime soon, if you're reading this (and a Swattie) and are interested, feel free to let me know now.